Ever stop and think about how odd some of the phrases we use are? Take ‘happy as a clam’ for example. Are clams actually that happy? The phrase most likely derives from an older, now mostly unheard New England idiom, “happy as a clam at high water.” It could also be simply because an open clamshell resembles a smile. But, regardless of whether or not we know its true etymology, we say it anyway. As noted linguistic psychologist and writer Steven Pinker tells us in The Stuff of Thought, these literary relics are examples of how “most metaphors are dead metaphors…which most people would probably stop using” if they knew their origins.
As language and culture evolve, we lose touch with the original meanings of words and phrases. Most of us don’t usually think about a word or phrase’s origin when we use it, and, as anyone who’s heard “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” will tell you, the same goes for nursery rhymes, including one of the most well-known in the English speaking world, Humpty Dumpty.
Most of us know the story of Humpty Dumpty; he sits on a wall, has a great fall, so on and so forth. But where in the rhyme does it say anything about an egg? Sure, if an egg had a great fall from a wall, not even Fabergé himself could piece it back together, let alone all the king’s horses and men, but one could argue the same for porcelain vases. Pinker also tells us in How the Mind Works, “the mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms,” a theory giving credence the notion (along with common sense) that there never was an egg-man enjoying a sit on a wall, and that it must represent something else. Recently I began wondering why, above all else, is Humpty an egg?
If we’re to answer that question, we need to go back to 17th century England, where a drink of brandy boiled with ale existed under the name humpty dumpty.. From the drink, it seems the term “humpty dumpty” became a colloquialism for a large, uncoordinated individual.
Around that time, in the same place, England was embroiled in its Civil War. During the siege of Colchester, the Royalist forces of King Charles I defended their stronghold fiercely with a large, powerful cannon. The cannon, big, and most likely clumsy, was named Humpty Dumpty. In a post by author Albert Jack, on the Penguin Group blog, the siege, and Humpty (the cannon) sat “on top of the church tower of St. Mary-at-the-Walls,” where “One-Eyed Thompson, the gunner, managed to blast away the attacking Roundhead troops with rousing success for eleven whole weeks…until the top of the church tower was eventually blown away, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground outside the city wall, where it buried itself in deep marshland.”
Seeing their chances of victory literally crash, the King’s forces tried to salvage the cannon to no avail. They were defeated, and soon, throughout revolutionary supporters, the original, and full version of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, recounting their victory, spread:
In sixteen hundred and forty-eight,
When England suffered the pains of state,
The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town
Where the king’s men still fought for the crown.
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall,
A gunner of deadliest aim of all.
From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired,
Humpty Dumpty was its name.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
This rhyme was more literal than metaphoric in nature, but as it was repeated and passed down, the original context began to fade, the first two stanzas were lost, and it most likely became a riddle, to which the answer was, just as fragile as the cannon, an egg. The problem with this, however, is that there are no known manuscripts of the riddle being used, and it is not until Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass that we see the modern version of the rhyme, along with the iconic illustration of the egg-man atop the wall. It’s from Carroll’s story we get our current, permanent picture of Humpty Dumpty as an egg.
Perhaps warfare and sieges aren’t the best things to connect to a nursery rhyme, and for that reason, we can keep the Humpty metaphor as “dead” one, as Pinker puts it. But that’s not to say there’s no value in stopping and thinking about the things we say. The next time you catch yourself using a phrase like “straight from the horse’s mouth,” it might be worth looking up, because who knows what that actually alludes to? The question is, once you find the answer, will you, as Pinker suggests, stop using it?